The Cover Story

Drain: “It’s about a good group of friends saying, ‘We can do this sh*t. We can make something bigger!’”

Three years that changed the world. That’s all it took to lift Drain from underground-popping cult heroes to bona fide hardcore superstars. On the eve of slamming second album Living Proof, frontman Sammy Ciaramitaro explains why the Santa Cruz scene leaders are still just getting started…

Drain: “It’s about a good group of friends saying, ‘We can do this sh*t. We can make something bigger!’”
Sam Law
Alexis Gross

Sammy Ciaramitaro is enjoying a moment in the sun. Hanging out against a wall outside his home in Santa Cruz at the tail-end of an unusually long Californian winter, there’s a heat-starved hunger about the larger-than-life Drain frontman. Days like these are not for wasting in the shade.

Neither is the wave Sammy’s band are riding after their meteoric rise to becoming a hardcore household name over the tumultuous last three years. Frank, fast-paced and full of enthusiasm, he waxes constantly on Drain’s past, present and future, spurred by the imminent arrival of second LP Living Proof. We pause only for him to throw a wave when a couple of hardcore-loving skater kids spill out of the high school across the street. “‘Aw, it’s the dude from Drain!’” he laughs, playfully mimicking their excitement with a smile wide enough to park a surfboard. “‘What’s up brooo?!’”

It’s easy to see how we got here. If modern hardcore is “a community, a lifestyle, an attitude, a code of ethics and the willingness to stick to your guns” as Sammy suggests, then he was always going to be one of its champions. With a linebacker build, protestations that he’s not always the most approachable dude – “I get upset, I’ve got days, everyone’s got days…” – feel tangibly legitimate, but his burgeoning reputation as the fan-loving, merch table-dwelling, anti-gatekeeper Nicest Man In Hardcore takes just a few minutes of chatter to feel fully deserved.

“I love that people know that they can talk, not just to me, but us as a band,” he shrugs, bashfully, deflecting the love to guitarist Cody Chavez and drummer Tim Flegal. “Some guys get a little buzz and think they’re hot shit. That’s wack. It’s not cool. That shit’s got no place in hardcore. It’s all about the golden rule: give the respect that you’d like to be given, and you’ll probably get it back.”

A telling sigh. “I feel guilty because, lately, I’ve had to stop doing merch. Not because I want to, because I keep losing my voice talking to fans or yelling ‘Large! 25!’ When we were only selling a shirt or two a night it was no biggie, but we’ve been very blessed recently and it’s hard to keep up.”

For the many who assume otherwise: Drain are not an overnight success. Next year they’ll mark 10 years as a band. The exuberant gratitude is charged not by juvenility, but the memories of countless nights hauling gear offstage through disdainful crowds. 2018’s Decatur, Alabama show, where zero punters paid, Sammy smiles, is an especially motivational milestone. The frontman reckons that perhaps only now have Drain broken the ratio of good shows to bad.

“When you don’t get that appreciation right out the gate and you have to work for it? You don’t forget that stuff. We’ll always find a way to get to the next city, but it’s a lot harder without the support of fans. And it’s a lot more fun when people are excited, too. It’s cool talking to people who’re stoked on you.”

For all its rough edges, hardcore tends to be a violent escape – a space for chaotic expression – for otherwise regular kids. Sammy believes that his bog-standard upbringing allows him to speak to that crowd. Hailing, originally, from San Pedro, Los Angeles (a hotbed that spawned Black Flag and The Minutemen), there’s an illustrative comparison to be drawn between his journey and that of Rotting Out who emerged two miles down the road. Where that band was “swallowed up by the streets”, Sammy comes from the other side of the tracks, son to a happy, upper-middle-class family. “I am so privileged,” he smiles. “I am a straight white male. I grew up in a family with two loving parents. And I never worried about a roof over my head.”

His “straight-arrow” younger brother works as airport security. His mum, in the city. Had things gone differently, Sammy sees a version of events where he ended up working with his dad at the docks. He’s not ‘political’ in the way that most bands who use that label consider themselves to be, but were someone to walk into a Drain show in MAGA attire, “It’s not going to be a case of, ‘agreed to disagree’.”

Counterpointing that, providing Drain’s spark is Sammy's willingness to trade the comfort of the life that might’ve been for the uncertainty of being in a band.

“Most people who find hardcore are fucked up in some way,” he reasons. “Maybe they’ve grown up in a rough household. Maybe that’s just the way their brain is wired. No-one here is what you’d call a ‘traditional upstanding citizen’. I had every reason to just be into football, to have a ‘good’ job, to get married right out of high school. I just chose a different path. And I’ve been alone in that. This has been a solo journey, and that’s cool. This life is for a certain kind of person. I know what I’m about and what I’m not. Even if I hadn’t found hardcore out of the gate, I knew that I wasn’t about that other lifestyle.”

Indeed, spinkicks and circle-pits might hog the limelight, but the longstanding need for genuine congeniality in hardcore was confirmed on a recent tour with NYHC legends Madball, where Sammy found himself cornered by legendary bassist Jorge ‘Hoya Roc’ Guerra.

“He said he’d been keeping tabs on me, watching how I interacted with the people at shows who weren’t in bands,” Sammy remembers. “He wanted to see the real me, because, ‘The only thing worse than a fake hard person is a fake nice person.’ It kinda scared the shit out of me to think that he was watching, but apparently I passed the test!”

There isn’t a lot conventionally ‘nice’ about Living Proof. A lean, mean, thrash-inflected 10 tracks clocking in at a shade over 25 minutes, it’s the kind of gleefully big-hitting, flab-free nugget custom-built to soundtrack chaos. Beneath the surface, too, its lurid colours and thrashing energy are drawn from a pile up of personal experience and the very real adversity Drain have overcome.

“I ran out of money,” the frontman says, bluntly. “We were on the tour grind, doing what we could, and every penny I had went to things like finding $300 to put in a merch order. We’d be making maybe $100 a night, that’d go on gas to the next show. Shit got complicated. It got hectic.”

Little did they know that’d be just the beginning. In January 2020, Sammy and his bandmates decided to move back to Southern California. Sammy would take a job with his parents’ company so he’d have security even when heading out on tour. Cody and Tim had similarly found ways to balance the books. Then COVID happened.

“My parents’ business was an events company…” the singer sighs. “As soon as lockdown hit, the work was gone. I was in a pinch again, trying to figure out how to get back to Santa Cruz. Tim’s job closed. Cody was in downtown LA looking out at riots on the street. We were having to make adult decisions on a teenager’s wallet.”

On top of it all, Sammy’s girlfriend suffered a major fall on their return. He’s not at liberty to go into detail due to a standing NDA but the impact was clearly deep: “Broken leases, landlords, lawsuits, helping my girlfriend learn to walk again. Then trying to find time at the end of every day for the band. It was like, ‘I don’t want to be a part of all this! I just want to play music with my friends.’”

That frustration is writ large in songs like Weight Of The World and Watch You Burn (a lead single recorded a full two years before the album drop) where Sammy’s nice-guy cred is buried under mountains of righteous outrage. It’s a feel that fits Drain’s thrashy edge like a battered denim vest (“Cody brings the riffs, and he’s got the right hand of a metal guitar player…”), with the obvious shades of Slayer and Testament complemented by deeper cut loves for bands like Exhorder, Vio-lence and Downey, CA’s Dark Angel. “Throw on [1981’s] Time Does Not Yield,” Sammy enthuses, “and there are parts of it where it’d be ‘spinkick music’ if you played it at a hardcore show!”

Crucially, the long pause precipitated some overdue development and change. Having begun to build a reputation as one of American hardcore’s buzz bands, debut LP California Cursed dropped into an uncertain world in April 2020. Rather than being lost to the stale silence, though, it sparked something in fans. The return of shows – Sammy’s “safe space” – was another corner turned.

“We saw how we’d evolved as a band,” he expands. “The last show we played in LA before COVID had maybe 30 kids there. The first show after was sold out to like 600.” The end of Gulch, too – in which Sammy played drums – allowed Drain to command full focus. “If COVID hadn’t happened, we probably would’ve broken up two years earlier. It was never supposed to be as big as it became: everyone has real jobs, families. It takes a lot to do that at that level, but we went out strong.”

Living Proof’s title-track is a callback to a particularly salient speech that Sammy found while trawling through old tour videos: “This band is living proof that you can achieve the things you want in life if you’re willing to work hard, to fail, to learn, to get up and try again.”

FTS (KYS), meanwhile, is a celebration of Sammy’s sobriety, discussing that journey in real detail for the first time. “If Living Proof is a song that I wish I’d heard when we were trying to get our bearings as a band, FTS is a song I wish I’d heard when I was starting to learn how to cope and get through life without alcohol. Drain isn’t a straight-edge band, but I’m straight-edge. I like that people have picked up on the darkness in it. I was never going to write a happy straight-edge song. It needs to be like, ‘Yo, dumbass, put the bottle down and get your shit together. Snap out of it!’”

Elsewhere, there’s a self-aware willingness to mix things up, avoiding hardcore fatigue. The somewhat misleadingly-titled Intermission, for instance, began life as an attempt to convert riffs into an instrumental, but ended up featuring hip-hop star Shakewell – a confessed hardcore aficionado signed to $uicideBoy$’s esteemed G*59 Records – for an invigorating, unexpected sonic swerve. Arguably even better is the penultimate, surprisingly straightforward cover of Descendents’ foamy classic Good Good Things.

“We could’ve easily done a Merauder cover, or All Out War, something people would expect, but by the time you get to track nine you know we can play heavy stuff. This is about doing something different. Not ‘Descendents goes hardcore’; I hate that shit. It’s more about branching out of our comfort zone and paying our respects by learning to sing – which, for the record, is really fucking hard.”

There is a sun-beaten ruggedness at the heart of Drain. It’s not as stereotypically Californian as the aforementioned Manhattan Beach legends, but it’s no less representative of the real Golden State.

“We’re just a product of our environment,” Sammy smiles. “We write songs about where we live and who we are. I live in Santa Cruz. It’s not a perfect place, but it’s beautiful, man. In the FTS music video, I’m riding my little red scooter. That’s me every day. If you live in Santa Cruz, you’ve seen me on that scooter. What you see is what you get. It’s why we’ll play a Descendents cover, or I’ll wear a Grateful Dead tee onstage. There are bands out there looking tough and toting guns who’ve never even been in a fight or fired a gun. We just keep it real, man. I have a good time. I like sitting in the sun. I like going to the beach. I just want to ride my scooter into the sunset.”

And, from ZULU to Scowl, Drain aren’t the only Californian hardcore crew striking it big right now...

“It ebbs and flows,” Sammy sidesteps the Cali-core hyperbole. “Everyone has a moment, then it moves on to the next. It’s a little bit of hype. It’s a little bit of the shared values. If you look at that Baltimore scene that was coming up a couple of years ago with Trapped Under Ice, Angel Du$T and Turnstile, it was all built around the same 15 or 20 guys. They made a big impact. In LA and Southern California, you have Downpresser, Twitching Tongues, Harness, Soul Search and all those bands who are all friends, playing a lot of the same shows and generally putting on for each other.

“In terms of us – and it’s important to note that I’m a transplant – it feels like all of my friends have been in bands forever. We’re very blessed to have, within maybe a 30 or 40 mile radius, Drain, Scowl, Sunami, Gulch and SPY. That’s pretty crazy. But we all ride for each other and put on for each other. We can do things ourselves. DIY shows are always cracked-out because we’ve toured over the years and know the people to make them happen. You don’t need a big promoter, a big agent, a big label. It’s about a good group of friends who’re writing good music, putting up for each other and saying ‘We can do this shit! We can make something bigger.’”

True to that, June 2021’s Real Bay Shit guerrilla show was a pivotal moment. Held in a San Jose parking lot loaned by a friend, the merch was printed by Sammy and Gulch bandmate Cole Kakimoto with that band’s vocalist Elliot Morrow building the stage. 2,000 fans, storming sets from the aforementioned Bay Area crew – as well as Los Angeles’ Xibalba – and a sky full of fireworks helped make it legendary. A year later, hardcore mega-fest Sound & Fury 2022 became an even bigger celebration, with most of the same bands, and an Outbreak-rivalling 5,000 attendance.

“Those were moments in time that’ll never happen again and I just feel so lucky to have been part of them,” Sammy smiles. “Gulch are done. The Real Bay Shit event was a one of one. We didn’t realise the impact that we’d made until it was right in front of us. You can look at having X number of monthly listeners, but it doesn’t mean as much because you don’t see it in front of you. It’s just sick that we’ve been able to resonate with so many people – and people let us do these things!”

Ultimately, of course, Living Proof is as much where Drain are going as how far they’ve come.

“Just getting that second record done, getting it out, having it on Epitaph is living proof not that we did it, but that we’re still doing it. And there’s still work to be done. At the moment, that’s about having one foot outside the world of hardcore. We’re not gonna change what we do, but we love getting in front of crowds of people that don’t know us. That could be getting on hip-hop shows with groups like City Morgue. It could be playing with pop-punk bands like Neck Deep. It could be getting out there with big legacy rock acts. We’ve headlined Sound & Fury. Now we need to go into other worlds.

“Hardcore is our home, but we need to give back to the scene we came from by introducing those kids who’ve never even heard of this type of music to a group of bands who could become all that they listen to. So we’ll do everything. We want to play the big mainstream festivals. We want to the do late night talk shows. We want to show that all of us can do this. Of course, you keep living your truth and we’ll keep living ours, but we’re going to prove that no matter where we want to go in life, all of us can get there!”

Living Proof is released May 5 via Epitaph

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